RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — In light of the conronavirus pandemic, Virginia’s governor asked Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. on Wednesday to reconsider his decision to welcome students back to the Lynchburg campus this week after their spring break.
Speaking at a news conference in Richmond, Gov. Ralph Northam criticized Liberty, which is among the nation’s largest and most prominent evangelical colleges, as sending “mixed messages” about COVID-19. The illness has crippled economies, forced restrictions on the movement of millions of people and swamped health care systems.
As many colleges nationwide began announcing campus closures this month, Liberty initially planned to continue on-campus instruction. But last week, after Northam restricted gatherings of more than 100, Liberty said it would transition most classes online effective Monday.
However, residential students were told they were “welcome” to return to campus, according to an email sent to students. The move was at odds with many other institutions of higher education, including the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, which has said only students who have “no other options” can remain on campus, and William & Mary, which closed its residence halls.
“I would suggest that President Falwell look to the actions of the leaders of Virginia’s flagship universities for how to set a strong example in this health crisis and to please reconsider his message that invites and encourages students to return to campus,” said Northam, who is a doctor.
Liberty spokesman Scott Lamb told The Associated Press on Tuesday that about 1,100 residential students were back on campus. He said the university would have a statement later Wednesday.
Liberty has said it is working hard to comply with all state restrictions while providing safe and reliable accommodations for students, including extra sanitizing measures and changes to on-campus dining.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death.
Local officials have told AP they were fielding complaints from residents and Liberty parents about the school’s policy. Lynchburg Mayor Treney Tweedy said in a statement Tuesday that she thought the decision letting students return was “reckless.”
On Wednesday, Northam quoted from 1 Corinthians, saying: “It is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful.”
“Proving faithful means providing clear and consistent guidance,” he went on to say. “And it means respecting the duty that Liberty University has to its students, its staff, the Lynchburg community in which it is located, and our Commonwealth.”